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Q&A: Growing pains vex South Sudan, five years after independence

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Refugee children prepare to return from Kenya to South Sudan in December 2005, soon after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which led to the nation’s independence in 2011. © UNHCR/Hélène Caux

The world’s youngest nation is grappling with war, hunger and a worsening refugee crisis.

By: Nora Sturm

As the world’s youngest nation prepares to mark its fifth birthday, significant numbers of South Sudanese are still fleeing conflict and, increasingly, hunger. Despite a peace agreement to end the conflict that began in December 2013, and despite small numbers of displaced people returning home, over 2 million people spread across seven countries continue to live in exile. As they yearn for a lasting peace that will allow them to return and rebuild South Sudan, those displaced need help now.

Ann Encontre is UNHCR’s Deputy Director for the East and Horn of Africa and Regional Refugee Coordinator for the South Sudan Emergency. She spoke to colleague Nora Sturm about the challenges facing South Sudan and its people.

As South Sudan marks its fifth anniversary, please describe how the situation has evolved.

We are seeing massive outflows of people, particularly women and children, from the country. Whereas we have been hoping for peace [since the formation of the transitional government of national unity], we have in reality seen more and more outbreaks of fighting, including most recently in Wau.

Since the 15th of December 2013, when the conflict [first] broke out, hundreds of thousands of refugees have sought asylum in the four countries neighbouring South Sudan. This year, unfortunately, that has expanded to six countries, because in addition to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, refugees are now seeking asylum in Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And at the same time there are millions displaced within South Sudan itself.

All of the refugees deserve to be at home, planting their crops, growing their foods and leading normal lives, but their reality is starkly different; many of them live in remote areas under very difficult circumstances outside their country.

Within South Sudan, there are around 5.3 million who have gone hungry because of insufficient food. The World Food Program, one of UNHCR’s main partners on the ground, has had to reduce the rations after a series of budget cuts, leaving many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) without enough to eat.

You were in Juba 10 years ago. Do you have any special memory of what it was like?

Ten years ago, it was euphoria, really, after the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed the peace deal. UNCHR and its partners brought home over 250,000 South Sudanese refugees who had sought asylum in neighbouring countries. They were returning to nothing, but it was their dream to come back and rebuild their nation. It really was a fantastic period.

That was short-lived, however, because 10 years later, we have more than 10 times the number of forcibly displaced people – either internally, inside South Sudan, or in the surrounding region.

Who is most affected by the current forced displacement, and what are their most pressing needs?

The people most affected by the fighting in South Sudan are children. Over half a million have been forced to flee their homes. Around 70 per cent of all refugees from South Sudan are under the age of 18. They are supposed to be the generation of tomorrow, the generation that will lead and rebuild their country, but right now, they are suffering enormously. They have been deprived of a normal life. Many of them are in camps or in settlements outside their country or in internal displacement sites inside South Sudan. They cannot go to school, they do not have proper food, they cannot access healthcare. We are doing what we can to keep them in good health, but the challenges of catering to all of their basic needs really are enormous.

The last time I met children at a school in Juba, one girl said, “We just want to eat ice cream and to play. We don’t want all this war. We want to live like normal children.” Just like my children would like to have dreams and aspirations, and they do, so do these children in South Sudan deserve a similar life.

What are UNHCR and its partners doing to help them?

We have been working with our partners on the ground for the past five years, and especially since conflict broke out in December 2013, to provide healthcare, education, shelter and livelihood opportunities to South Sudanese refugees and internally displaced people. This assistance is very limited, however, and the challenges are enormous. We do not have the required resources to give them the care that they need and deserve.

Luckily and very gratefully, all of the countries neighbouring South Sudan have opened their arms and provided asylum and security to the refugees. The host communities have been at the forefront of this welcome, sharing their limited resources.

But this situation is not sustainable. It has dragged on for too long. The South Sudanese, especially the children, need to be back home, leading their normal lives and building their country.

What should the international community be doing?

We have launched several funding appeals, and will issue another one shortly for a total amount of over US$700 million, in partnership with other humanitarian organizations. We ask that the international community not forget the South Sudanese and provide the resources, both human and financial, that we need to deliver life-saving protection and assistance to the refugees and help them live as normally as they can, under these very difficult circumstances.

Do you recall how you felt about South Sudanese independence five years ago? Where do you hope the country and its population will be five years from now?

If I described euphoria 10 years ago, there was even more jubilation five years ago, when the country became independent. The eyes of the world were on this young nation, the youngest in fact, and there was so much hope that the country would embark upon a transition towards democracy and development. I don’t think we have lost hope, but there is a real need for more commitment and support to the South Sudanese people, both inside the country and in the surrounding region.